California Won't Wait For Congress On Immigration Reform

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill that limits cooperation with federal authorities that want immigration holds on undocumented people arrested for minor infractions. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has a more extensive proposal to ban virtually all cooperation with the feds. On immigration issues, California appears to be headed in the opposite direction of states like Arizona.

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In other immigration news, California Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law a measure that makes it harder for federal immigration officials to detain people believed to be in this country illegally. The new state law, called the Trust Act, restricts local police from holding undocumented immigrants without serious criminal records and turning them over to immigration authorities. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Governor Brown's action is a repudiation of a federal program called Secure Communities. Under that program, an undocumented immigrant who has been arrested but has been cleared for release can be held for an additional 48 hours, in time for federal immigration officials to pick them up for deportation.

But opponents of the program said it has resulted in a dragnet, capturing people who committed only minor offenses or none at all. Brown said he signed the new law because he felt he could no longer wait on Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform. It's a message he's been hammering in recent days.

GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN: There's been a sea change in public attitude, and they're - the people of California, a strong majority, are sympathetic to the plight of those who've come to California to live and work.

GONZALES: Take the case of Nelly Fuentes, a soft-spoken, diminutive woman from Mexico who lives in San Francisco. About a year ago, she got into an argument with her drunken boyfriend.

NELLY FUENTES: (Foreign language spoken)

GONZALES: She says her boyfriend began beating her. A neighbor called the police. But when the officers arrived, they arrested both her and her boyfriend. Fuentes says because she doesn't speak English, then she was unable to explain her side of the story.

Under the Secure Communities program, the local police reported her to immigration authorities. She says she spent eight nightmarish months in federal detention facing deportation. Fuentes was finally freed when she was granted a visa designated for victims of domestic abuse. The experience made her afraid of the police.

FUENTES: (Foreign language spoken)

GONZALES: She now says she'd be reluctant to report a crime she might witness.

FRANCISCO UGARTE: I think Nelly is the perfect illustration of an immigration enforcement system that has gotten out of control.

GONZALES: Francisco Ugarte is Nelly Fuentes' attorney.

UGARTE: Part of the reason we need limitations to these dragnet immigration programs is to promote public safety, to encourage people to report crimes.

GONZALES: The new law covers people who may have committed a misdemeanor. But local police may still hold illegal immigrants if they have been convicted of a serious or violent offense. That would include child abuse, burglary and embezzlement. The Trust Act has the support of some law enforcement officials, but critics include many local sheriffs and groups that oppose illegal immigration, who say it undermines law enforcement.

Ira Mehlman is a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

IRA MEHLMAN: California has one of the highest criminal recidivism rates in the country, which means that the people who could be remanded to federal custody for removal from the country are going to be back out on the streets of California. And if statistics bear out, they are going to go on to victimize other people in California.

GONZALES: Governor Brown vetoed a similar measure last year. But he agreed to sign the Trust Act this year after negotiating changes expanding the number of offenses that would trigger a call to immigration officials. Brown also signed seven other immigration-related bills protecting undocumented residents in the workplace and schools, and even allowing an illegal resident to be admitted to the state bar association. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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